More work to do on Pentagon reforms

WASHINGTON – There is more pressure than ever on the defense budget, but no shortage of challenges to our national security. So making smart use of scarce dollars is essential. That’s why in late April, I chaired a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to assess the impact of the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 and other acquisition reform measures adopted over the last decade, and to learn what new steps we can take to rein in Pentagon weapons costs.

Six years ago, we held a similar hearing at a time of real crisis. In 2008, the Government Accountability Office assessed the progress of 72 major weapons systems. Disturbingly, half of those programs had exceeded cost growth standards that Congress established to identify seriously troubled programs. These programs had exceeded their research and development budgets by an average of 40 percent and experienced an average schedule delay of almost two years.

The problem was that the Defense Department was trying to build complex weapon systems without doing the up-front engineering, design and cost estimating work needed to put an acquisition program on sound footing. We learned that as general rule, it can cost ten times more to fix a problem after you have built a weapon system than it does to get it right the first time.

The Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act, which Sen. John McCain and I introduced in early 2009, and which was enacted several months later, focused on getting things right at the beginning of an acquisition program. It set new standards to require that the Pentagon make sure key technologies were ready before they were incorporated into weapons systems; set up a new office in the Pentagon responsible for making reliable cost estimates; and took steps to establish the skills and procedures necessary to solve tough problems on the drawing board, before they become bigger, more expensive problems.

There is now evidence that our 2009 legislation has brought about significant improvements.

GAO’s 2014 report found that in the previous year 50 of the 80 major weapons programs had reduced their overall costs, and 64 percent had increased their buying power, resulting in $23 billion in savings. In short, WSARA and other reform efforts in Congress and at the Pentagon have resulted in significant cost reductions on many of our major acquisition programs, a result that was rarely achieved five or six years ago.

Nonetheless, more remains to be done. For example, GAO has found that despite the improvements of the last five years, the Defense Department has yet to fully implement a number of best practices, such as making sure technologies are fully mature before using them, and bringing all manufacturing processes under control before starting production. And its track record in the acquisition of new computer systems remains abysmal, with repeated examples of systems that take years longer than expected to field, run hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, and end up cancelled without any benefit at all to the government.

That is why I recently joined Sen. McCain in sending letters (in our capacity as chairman and ranking member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations) to several dozen acquisition experts, seeking their views on deficiencies in the defense acquisition process, steps that should be taken to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of this process, and the extent to which recent legislative and policy reforms may have resulted in improvements. And it is why Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, and I recently joined with our counterparts on the House Armed Services Committee in writing to industry associations, seeking their views on a similar set of issues.

Making smarter, more efficient use of our defense dollars is essential if we’re to give our men and women in uniform the best, most effective equipment. It’s key to protecting our national security against the varied threats we face. And it’s just plain fair to hard-working taxpayers. Though we’ve had significant success in reforming Pentagon buying practices, we’ll keep working on ways to reduce costs and increase value for taxpayers and our troops.

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Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.